Practical activities in robotics: hands-on or simulator?

Rosewell, Jonathan (2014). Practical activities in robotics: hands-on or simulator? In: HEA STEM Annual Learning and Teaching Conference: Enhancing the STEM Student Journey, 30 Apr - 1 May 2014, Edinburgh.



The Open University (OU) module Robotics and the meaning of life: a practical guide to things that think (T184) was an introductory course on robotics which ran from 2003-2011 and continues to run in an updated form. This is taught online but contains a strong practical element.

Practical activities in the initial plans for the course were designed around the Lego Mindstorms RCX robotics kit. Students would build and program an autonomous wheeled robot able to carry out a range of tasks of increasing complexity. A new programming environment, OU RobotLab, was developed at the Open University to support the needs of adult learners with no previous experience of programming and to make extended use of the capabilities of the Mindstorms kits.

However, it was not practical for the Open University to provide Lego kits for student use at scale in this module. Instead, RobotLab was extended to include a simulation of the robot. Students were thus offered the choice of carrying out practical activities either as simulation or using real hardware, provided they had access to a suitable kit.

Students were surveyed at the start and end of each presentation of the course to look at the attitudes and experiences of students to these different approaches to practical work. This gives us an opportunity to ask: can student learn practical skills at the computer or is it necessary to have hands-on practical experience?

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